From narco-sanctioned music to secret videos and public banners, some Mexican drug traffickers have asked for forgiveness. But after decades of violence that, most recently, led to the murder of two Catholic priests, will Mexicans ever be ready to forgive?
It is about 90 seconds into what is a typical ranchera-homage, or narcocorrido, of Ovidio Guzmán — one of three brothers known collectively as the Chapitos, a faction of the modern-day iteration of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel — when the lead singer of the group, Código FN, suddenly feels the need for an aside.
“Oh, and by the way, I would like to apologize for the Culiacanazo,” he hums, making reference to the violent October 2019 upheaval against authorities that followed Guzmán’s brief detention in Culiacán, the city that has long served as the Chapitos’ headquarters.
“I didn’t fight,” the singer continues on behalf of Guzmán in the video in which he is frequently surrounded by burning vehicles. “The wellbeing of my daughters comes first.”
The Culiacanazo paralyzed the city for more than five hours. Amidst the chaos, the government backed down and freed Guzmán. But for the traffickers, there was still a need for atonement. During the fighting, between eight and 14 people died, and many others were injured. Cars were burned to hem in government forces, and gunfights put hundreds at risk and closed businesses and schools.
Perhaps even worse, armed men invaded the local army barracks and kidnapped several family members of army personnel, crossing a symbolic line that has long been respected by both sides (and kept an unwritten détente between them in place in areas like Culiacán).
However, that code, which ostensibly includes leaving “civilians” (and even soldiers’ families housed in enemy territory) alone, has never been particularly clear and is harder to enforce. This was evident most recently in northern Mexico where two priests and a tourism guide were killed in late June, allegedly by drug traffickers who chased the guide into a church where he’d sought refuge.
In response, Mexico’s Archdiocese, in a rare confrontational editorial in its weekly publication, called on President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to “examine the security strategies.” And while the Catholic Church hierarchy may not speak for the entire Catholic clergy (in years past, other prominent priests, such as Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, have asked for “forgiveness” from the narcos, who he considers victims of neoliberal economics and corrupt politics), it remains an important barometer.
The “strategies” are popularly known as abrazos no balazos (hugs, not bullets), a reference to something López Obrador floated during his presidential campaign but has only partially followed as president. The idea is to ratchet down the tensions between the government and criminal groups, and open space for reconciliation via a less repressive approach than his predecessors.
For many, the Culiacanazo is the illustration of the strategy’s abject failure. AMLO, as he is popularly known, defended his decision to release Guzmán and withdraw the security forces, telling the media a couple of years after the event he did not want to “put at risk the population” or “civilians.”
But AMLO has also used the security forces to go after criminal groups in much the same way as his predecessors. He has continued to arrest the heads of criminal organizations and deploy troops in large numbers to quell violence and criminality.
The results are mixed. Murder rates over the course of his administration are down only slightly from their record high. Of course, not all of these are organized crime-related murders, but a good portion are. What’s more, thousands have disappeared or fled the violence. Others have been forcibly recruited or trafficked by criminal groups. And still others have been forced out of business or school, as was clear on the day of the Culiacanazo when the city suddenly stopped.
Criminal groups try to make up for these barbarities by issuing public statements that often blame the authorities or rival groups; by buying off the public with public works projects, large festivals, or handouts; or by calling for, and often providing vigilante justice against the perpetrators.
Following the murder of the two priests, for instance, purported members of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) issued a video asking other groups not to mess with priests, doctors, or teachers.
“The war is between us,” one of the masked members said, reading from a script while surrounded by other, well-armed masked men.
When none of this works, the criminals often ask for forgiveness.
Guzmán first issued a statement in 2019 on social media, saying via Instagram that he would like “to apologize for all the actions that were taken.”
By then, the passive-voice, narco-apology was a tradition of sorts. In 2013, the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios) asked for “forgiveness” following “commentary and criticism” (“comentarios y criticas”) in Michoacán, their home territory, in a message scrawled on a banner. In 2015, after numerous gun battles in Jalisco, the CJNG hung dozens of banners in the state promising people that the “problem is not with you.”
And in 2016, while speaking to a reporter, Rafael Caro Quintero — the long-time drug trafficker and, until recently, Mexico’s most sought-after fugitive — asked for forgiveness of “Mexican society for all the errors that I committed,” as well as the family of the murdered Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent for which he was once condemned to 40 years in a Mexico prison.
Just how these apologies fit into AMLO’s larger plan for hugs, not bullets is not clear. During his campaign, he floated the idea of an “amnesty” for narcos, “if and when it has the support of the victims, the family members of the victims.”
But after being elected — aside from a reference to the possibility of commuting the sentences of prisoners over the age of 65 who had been tortured — he has largely cloaked his idea of forgiveness in vague, quasi-religious terms. As president, he has also refused to spell out publicly if he is talking about judicial forgiveness in the form of an amnesty or pardons for narcos, religious forgiveness in the form of priestly or pastoral absolution, or narco-forgiveness of the type Guzmán and Caro Quintero seem to be asking for.
For many Mexicans, it may not matter. In addition to some parts of the Catholic Church hierarchy, victims’ organizations have routinely rejected this softer approach, with one prominent representative of the victims of narco-violence summing it up nicely when she said they would accept “neither forgiveness nor forgetting” in their fight to get justice.
In the days that followed the Archdiocese blistering editorial, the two sides later appeared to move closer when the National Bishops Conference (Conferencia del Episcopado Mexicano) issued a statement “to unite us in a call for peace.” AMLO, in one of his morning press conferences, said he “supported” that statement without committing to any concrete steps.
Still, the lines remained clear: Forgiveness will not come easy from a society bloodied and battered from years of conflict, or even from an institution that is built on that very premise.